Personal Shopper opened to a very divided reception its Cannes premiere was booed but in contrast others have already called it among their best films of the year. I can understand why. Its a film that doesnt automatically fall into any easy dramatic structure. It often feels like three or four competing plots all of which circle around the same character and crisscross without quite coalescing and wilfully leave loose ends everywhere.
There is one plot strand about Kristen Stewart attempting to contact the ghost of her twin brother. We see several manifestations of ghostly phenomena even if she remains far less sure about the actuality of there being anything there. The final scene of the film has Kristen enter a room where she hears rapping in answer to her questions. She asks Are you there or is it just me? which gets a rap leaving you unclear which half of the question this was in response to. Indeed, this is an ending that arrives at exactly the same place that the classic Henry James ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898) did for which see the film version The Innocents (1961) in leaving one unsure whether the manifestations we have seen are actual phenomena or exist only inside the heroines imagination.
There is another whole plot about Kristen Stewart being contacted by a mystery texter, whose identity remains unknown and could possibly be her brothers ghost. The scene where she takes the Eurorail to London and converses with the texter throughout the journey is the most absorbing section of the film the first Ive seen where suspense is entirely generated from a text conversation up on the screen. The mystery caller probes her with personal questions and pushes her to take a step into the forbidden by actually dressing up in some of the high-end fashion items she buys for her celebrity employer, which gives the film a certain illicit thrill. In the last quarter, a murder mystery enters out of the blue, where for a time Kristen is treated as a suspect, but this doesnt fully get the screen time that you feel like it needs. There is a maybe connection between this and the mystery texter plot as Kristen arrives at the hotel for the second time and a character exits to be arrested by the police for the murder, which implies but does not directly make a connection between the two plot strands.
Personal Shopper is a film that feels unfinished and incomplete. With the exception of the least of the stories, the murder mystery, Assayas fails to resolve any of its plots. He leaves answers beyond our grasp. The connections between the plots feel loose, leave you guessing. These divergent strands leave you with the feel of a film that was on the verge of saying a lot of interesting things but as though the last chapter had been ripped out of the whodunnit.
Olivier Assayass new muse is Kristen Stewart. I dont have a huge liking for Stewart I did like what she did in Twilight (2008) but in the sequels and thereafter she has sleepwalked her way through a series of roles. Here she seems to be making somewhat of an effort and at least holds the show. Shes still too closed off a screen presence and fails to light the show up. Casting someone like say Scarlett Johanssen or Emma Stone would have given the show a different vibe but who knows maybe a taciturn and remote, vaguely troubled character is what Olivier Assayas wanted. Getting undressed in a Euro arthouse film used to be the way to signal you were a serious actress and so Kristen takes her top off several times throughout but I am still sure some acting lessons would have gone a good way further.